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Modern Viewpoints

Contemporary-art galleries drive visitors to Kent



photo by ryan lavine

The white, crag-like surface of Sol LeWitt’s acrylic, “Splotch #17,” occupies a large portion of a small, rectangular room. The artwork sits below a neon-yellow sign that asks, “What does this mean?” Through a nondescript door and up a flight of stairs is a larger room, the walls of which are bedecked with works by some of the giants of modern art: Cy Twombly, Saul Steinberg, Lee Krasner, and Andy Warhol. The gallery, James Barron Art, which opened in September 2014, is an exciting addition to an already vibrant art scene in Kent.

Within walking distance of the Barron, as it’s called, on Main Street are two other galleries, the Morrison and the Ober, which also offer contemporary art of high quality. In fact, Kent’s future as an art destination is both exciting and disconcerting—depending on whom you ask.

Kent’s attraction for gallery owners is no new phenomenon. In the early 1980s, Jacques Kaplan, a flamboyant New York City furrier with art-world connections, decided that Kent should be the state’s art destination. He opened his ambitiously named Paris-New York-Kent gallery in 1984, beginning a trend when, from the mid-1980s until Kaplan’s death in 2008, Kent was home to no fewer than six galleries at any one time.

The galleries enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with a fluid give-and-take. Coordinated events in which guests moved freely between multiple spaces in the town’s center while viewing art, sipping wine, and socializing were common. Barron, a regular attendee of such functions and a close friend of Kaplan, has fond memories of the time. “Jacques was a tremendously vivacious man with a great appetite for art and life,” he recalls. “There existed a synergy between the galleries, and there were great shows that featured a mix of contemporary and historic work.” Consequently, large numbers of New Yorkers descended upon Kent on the weekends to enjoy its many restaurants, shops, and cultural offerings, and downtown Kent profited.

With Kaplan’s passing, however, only two major players prevailed—the Ober, run by Rob Ober, a teacher at the Kent School who also specializes in Russian contemporary art; and the Morrison, run by William Morrison, whose specialty is placing large sculpture installations in public spaces. The effect of this downsizing is one of more specialty, more independence. 

Absent of animosity or competition, according to both gallery owners, their relationship is an alliance of sorts that has yielded positive results for both. Barron’s appearance changes the dynamic of the enclave and could shake up the balance so carefully maintained.    James Barron spent a large part of the past 11 years away from his home in Kent, working as an art dealer and living in Rome, Italy. He returned in 2014 with persistent memories of the exuberance of his close friend, Kaplan, and the art scene Kaplan had cultivated in the area. “When I moved back from Rome, I decided now is the time I’d like to make an impact,” he says.

Barron’s contributions—including big-name artists, extensive experience as an international art dealer, and an established clientele that will follow him to the area—have had a profound impact in only a few short months. “I applaud the other galleries for their longevity and contribution. There is a synergy that exists between the three galleries: each has its own unique vision and complements the others,” Barron says, echoing the idea of Morrison and Ober that each gallery needs a distinct identity.

The distinction that Barron brings, and the clients that are sure to follow, could potentially benefit all the galleries in the area. Barron feels that coordinated events, openings, readings, and performance art across all three galleries on any given night could only help each gallery to thrive. Where a single gallery opening may draw only a small crowd willing to make the pilgrimage to Kent, three galleries, each a few steps from one another, hosting three events at the same time could potentially draw art lovers and collectors in droves.

Not everyone is enthusiastic about the idea, however. Morrison voices concern that a third contemporary-art gallery in such close proximity will have a negative effect on a business he has spent nearly two decades building. “This is not Chelsea,” he declares. “It would be one thing if there were a row of galleries, but another contemporary gallery across the street has definitely not helped business.” 

Kent is by no means a large market, and though two contemporary-art galleries have proven successful over the past few years, it is possible that a third could not be sustained. Yet Kent does have a long history of gallery activity. Kent was for over two decades home to many galleries that existed simultaneously. 

On a brisk weekend morning, a man parked on a side street and was making his way on foot to breakfast when a small crowd piqued his interest. The crowd moved about the Barron, helping themselves to a selection of libations offered atop two tables. The man, Pulitzer-nominated art critic and Litchfield County native Jerry Saltz, had no knowledge of the gallery prior to that day. By happenstance, he stopped in and found himself happily eye to eye with world-class art.

Kent may not be Chelsea, but it is a town with a rich history of galleries and a multitude of art lovers and collectors in and around it. While it is too soon to say what effect Barron’s presence will have, or if Kent can sustain three contemporary-art galleries, it is certain that more galleries in Kent can only be a good thing for those who appreciate art.

*******

GOING TO TOWN  Kent gallery owner William Morrison, in conjunction with the Broadway Mall Association and NYC Parks, will place sculptures of featured artist Don Gummer along Broadway in Manhattan - May 2015.

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